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The ghost of Christmas presents: Retailers forge a new path with pandemic-era holiday ads

Traditional holiday themes such as family gatherings, lavish celebrations and in-person gift exchanges are off the table this year.
Image: Holiday shopping
A person wearing a mask walks past the Bloomingdale's holiday windows in New York, on Dec. 2, 2020.Anthony Behar / Sipa USA via AP

Already a holiday season like no other, the 2020 shopping experience has seen a huge shift in terms of when and where it is taking place — and how companies are advertising their wares amid a bleak economic landscape.

Holiday sales started earlier than ever before, with many retailers spreading out their seasonal promotions in order to maintain social distancing protocols in stores and to prevent bottlenecks in the supply chain.

E-commerce has surged during the pandemic, with spending topping a record $100 billion over the Thanksgiving weekend as consumers opted to shop from the comfort and safety of their own couch, according to Adobe Analytics.

And it has innovated, with retailers adding features such as curbside pickup, in-store fulfillment, more contactless options and partnerships with personal delivery services like Shipt and Instacart and even Uber to relieve strain on other carriers.

The new promotions, protocols and platforms have also led to a shift in holiday messaging.

“Advertisers are really trying to figure out this different world of ‘I'm not drawing people into the store,'” said Andrew Hogenson, Global Head of Consumer Goods, Retail and Logistics at Infosys Consulting. “They're trying to play a role in your lives and in your home, which is where they're ultimately reaching you."

The home is now central to where retailers are placing their ads, as well as forming the core of the message itself. Spending on billboards, transit, street furniture and other outdoor advertising was down by 21.9 percent this year, according to market researcher eMarketer. Meanwhile, digital ad spending — which includes any ads on personal devices — increased by 7.5 percent.

Traditional holiday themes such as family gatherings, lavish celebrations and in-person gift exchanges are off the table this year. Instead, companies are tapping into messaging surrounding the pandemic — unity, in a digital sense, rather than physical.

Crafts retailer Etsy, which has seen a record-breaking year with revenue up almost 130 percent in the third quarter alone, showcases the power of a present in its “Gift Like You Mean It” commercials. In one, a grandmother greets family members on Christmas morning via video chat. She opens a gift to find a stuffed toy, while her grandson tells her through the screen, “Look! The present is me. You’re supposed to hug it when you can’t see us.”

A Walmart ad features neighbors sharing a holiday dinner across a fence between their backyards, with a narrator saying, “This year, we came together. Tastes were shared. Traditions were invented and family was redefined. Let’s end the year united.”

This year's crop of holiday commercials also includes one from CVS, the pharmacy giant's first TV ad in years. It focuses on small moments that make the holidays special: hanging Christmas lights, decorating gingerbread houses and opening holiday cards in small gatherings or solo.

“It's more important than ever to connect with our customer base in a more emotional way,” Erin Condon, CVS Health Vice President, Front Store and Omnichannel Marketing, told NBC News. “We decided that this year, given spikes in consumer digital media consumption and television consumption — given the number of hours that people are staying home because of Covid — it made sense to make this a part of our mix.”

Television ad spending, which saw an overall downward trend in 2020, has seen an uptick ahead of the holiday season. The number of 30-second retail TV ads was down by 14 percent the week before Thanksgiving, compared to a decline of over 30 percent in September, according to data and insights company Kantar Media.

Social media advertising, however, is a growing force this year. CVS has partnered with Instagram influencers for its #NeedALittleCheer campaign, Disney has paired up with American Eagle and TikTok stars Addison Rae and Wisdom Kaye; and Lowe’s has joined up with influencers to promote its #LetterstoHome campaign.

“Throughout the season, we’ll be inspiring consumers to ‘gift back’ to the place that has meant so much this year,” Marisa Thalberg, Lowe’s executive vice president, chief brand and marketing officer, said in an emailed statement to NBC News. “It is our hope that by giving the gift of home, consumers will be inspired to keep demonstrating their resiliency, creativity and joy born out of the moments we have all spent at home.”